Talk to someone long enough about Peggy Brevoort, and inevitably her astrological chart will come up.
Maybe it?s because she was a hippie who traveled in a Volkswagen Microbus, spent a year at an ashram in Canada and grew organic crops on a farm in Oregon that she terms ?on the edge of society.?
Maybe it?s because she?s studied Eastern religions and culture and, through her company, East Earth Herbs, was the first to manufacture Chinese herbal remedies in the United States.
Maybe it?s because she was a leader in herbal supplements industry organizations such as the American Herbal Products Association and the American Botanical Council, where someone?s astrological sign can be as much a measure of a person as how successful her business is.
Maybe it?s because she?s just such a quintessential Leo—ruled by the sun and the lion—vivacious, warm-hearted, self-confident, independent, extroverted, ambitious, adventurous, creative, strong-willed, forward-thinking.
?Peggy has all of Leo?s personal vibrancy,? says Lynda LeMole, an AHPA board member with Brevoort in the 1990s. ?There?s a lot of light in her face and eyes. She projects a lot of warmth. She?s a sun queen. That?s what we should call her—our herbal sun queen.?
Others cite the qualities that come from Brevoort?s sun in the fourth house, which rules the home, emotional stability, nurturing and safety. ?She?s so kind, so welcoming, so inviting,? says Lyn Ciocca, president of marketing research firm Wellness Resources. Ciocca met Brevoort in 1993, when Ciocca was making a career leap from the drug industry to the natural products arena. ?Meeting her made a huge difference to me in feeling confident within a world I knew nothing about, that I was new to. I?m trying to think if I?ve ever had such a kind, welcoming experience from a stranger before, and I don?t think I have.?
Then there?s Brevoort?s moon in Capricorn, which gives her patience, endurance, practicality and a strong will. ?Peggy makes things real. She?s the stable one, the one who keeps things together. I think she?s the main reason our business made it as long as it did,? says Bill Brevoort, her husband and business partner.
And finally, there?s the Saturn-Venus connection she shares with her husband of 43 years, whom she met in high school. ?It forecasts a long-term association. We?ve tried to get away from each other in the past, and it doesn?t work,? he says with a laugh.
Manhattan to Green Acres
Peggy Brevoort was born in 1943 in New York City and grew up in Connecticut. She married Bill when she was 18, and together they attended the University of Connecticut, where she studied liberal arts, but never graduated. They have two children, Gretchen and Joshua.
On paper, she had grown up as a typical 1950s suburban girl.
But in 1967, Bill got a teaching job in the art department at the University of Oregon. ?It was just at the bloom of the whole tune in, turn on, drop out time,? Peggy says. Bill, Gretchen and a pregnant Peggy headed to the West Coast in a VW bus. At Bill?s new job, they met the fringe society, including people involved in starting the nation?s first food co-ops. Peggy became enamored with the idea of natural and organic food.
?On the East Coast you don?t pick your food on the side of the road, but in Oregon, it falls off trees,? she says. ?It was fascinating because it was so new.?
The Brevoorts became more involved with alternative lifestyles. Bill studied Buddhism and traditional Chinese herbal medicine. Peggy learned to cook organic foods. ?We were very much determined to reassess our lives at that point—taking charge of our lives and our health,? she says.
In 1970, they moved to a yoga ashram in eastern British Columbia. Peggy worked in the kitchen, but had a sideline. ?When I got bored with cooking, I taught myself accounting. I love numbers,? she says.
?She?s one of the most brilliant women financially,? adds LeMole. ?She?s very math-literate.?
After a year in the ashram, Peggy?s parents died, and with her small inheritance, the Brevoorts bought 65 acres near the coast of Oregon, between Reedsport and Eugene. ?It was very far from town,? she recalls with a laugh.
Their goal was to live off the land. They had no phone, radio or television. ?We wanted to move ourselves and our children away from mainstream society and be part of the new, alternative, natural products community,? Peggy says. But eventually, ?We realized we needed to make some money.?
They decided to turn their passion for natural remedies and Bill?s knowledge about traditional Chinese medicine into an importing business. America had just opened trade relations with China, so the Brevoorts wrote letters to the Chinese National Product Import and Export Corp. and agents in Hong Kong who were serving as middlemen between China and the United States. The agents were bemused, Peggy remembers.
?Not many people in the U.S. appreciated Chinese herbs, and here was some white guy ordering them with intelligence.?
Starting a business with no phone would have daunted most people. ?You?d have to use a ship-to-shore radio just to get an order to them,? says American Botanical Council Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, who bought ginseng from the Brevoorts in the early 1970s for his company, Sweethardt Herbs. The nearest phone line ended two miles from the Brevoorts? farm, so they rented a trailer and parked it nearby. When they were expecting a call, Peggy or Bill would trek to the trailer phone, although Peggy made sure not to make the trip after dark. ?There really were bears on the way to the phone—I?m not exaggerating!? she says.
?But the obstacles didn?t matter. We wanted the herbs and we wanted the lifestyle. No one thought about getting rich—in fact it was an embarrassment if you bought a new car. It was about passion. Our generation was given an incredible luxury—time to explore and an incredible education to have the lifestyle we wanted.?
East Earth Herbs
The Brevoorts founded East Earth Herbs in 1971 and began importing about 120 different Chinese herbs that many Americans had never seen, including ginseng, ephedra and dong quai. ?We were a conduit between the Far East and these herbs, this undiscovered system of medicine [in the United States]. Being able to offer it was overwhelming and so exciting. It was [akin to] the beginning of the computer industry, with a bunch of guys in a garage cooking up a computer,? Peggy says.
In the Brevoorts? case, substitute a kitchen for a garage. They concocted herbal formulas at their kitchen table, using recipes from Chinese books and catalogs. They partnered with their neighbor to grind herbs and mix formulas, and bribed their kids with peanut butter to do their share of grinding. They launched Dragon Egg Chinese herb pills and Dragon Brew bottled drink. ?It was one of the first energy drinks—we brewed it by the gallon on the back porch,? Peggy says.
In the late 1970s, they partnered with Ted Kaptchuk, who had studied in China and has a Ph.D. in Oriental medicine. Together they launched Jade Pharmacy, a Chinese herbal line geared toward professionals such as acupuncturists and naturopaths.
?Peggy and Bill had a lot of knowledge and experience. I don?t think I taught them much,? says Kaptchuk, who wrote the classic Chinese medicine guide The Web That Has No Weaver (McGraw-Hill, 2000).
Kaptchuk, now an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University and associate director for alternative medicine research and education at Boston?s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, remembers how the Brevoorts were not only pioneers in bringing TCM to the United States, but also in developing delivery systems Americans could understand.
?They modified complex Chinese formulas based on Western patients? symptoms. For instance, in China, there?s not much dryness of the skin. Hot flashes are much more common for American women than Chinese women.?
The idea was to combine Western terminology with Chinese herbs. A Chinese liver function formula could become ?a fabulous hangover remedy,? Peggy says. Dong quai could be marketed as a ?women?s longevity? herb. She also wrote pamphlets explaining the herbs? use and heritage.
?There was a lot of education needed for Americans because there was a big cultural gap. The Chinese are raised knowing and understanding herbal medicines. Americans knew about Peter Rabbit and chamomile tea.?
The Brevoorts grew the business through word of mouth. ?We were on the hippie circuit. People stopped by in school buses to buy our products and sell them to co-ops and health food stores,? Peggy says. They also shipped to manufacturers such as Eden Foods and Celestial Seasonings.
In the late 1970s, they began more aggressively marketing the company, signing with distributors and attending trade shows. They also launched another brand, Turtle Mountain, which was geared toward Western medicine practitioners.
Working the floor
At the trade shows, East Earth Herbs was famous, not only for its booth lined with jars of liquid extracts of Chinese herbs, but also for the Brevoorts? top-grade, invitation-only kava parties.
Lynda LeMole, now executive director of United Plant Savers, remembers a typical visit to the East Earth booth. ?People would say, ?I was up until 4 in the morning, I had to give a presentation at 10 o?clock, and I was partying with my friends.? Bill would take your pulse, look at your tongue, put a couple squirts together from his jars and you?d walk off feeling great.
?It became a watering hole. People would come, schmooze with Peggy and get their chemistry straightened out by Bill.?
At the trade shows, the Brevoorts? different roles became apparent. ?I was just the crazy, mad scientist sitting in the corner,? Bill says. ?It was Peggy who did the massaging.?
?Bill had to be a hippie and a monk, so somebody had to run the business,? says AHPA President Michael McGuffin. ?He made it clear he wanted a lot of time alone, while you knew Peggy was going to be at every event, every party, with every person. Peggy flew in first class because the pilot recognized her. Bill didn?t want that.?
With her Leo love of socializing, Peggy quickly amassed a following. ?When she walked the floor of a trade show, you could never get through the aisle. People stopped her, grabbed her and wanted to hug and kiss her,? says Avatar Marketing President Kim Driggs, a consultant to East Earth in the 1990s.
Peggy and a handful of women in the supplements industry formed a group known as the Single Malt Quality Assurance Alliance Divas and walked the show floor in tiaras. ?We would go out to dinner wearing them,? remembers Diva Suzanne Shelton, president of Shelton Group Public Relations. ?I don?t know why it was so much fun—I guess because it was a small group of women in an industry without many women.
?We would drink a lot and talk about stuff we were working on, how we could move the industry forward, how the industry could change, who we needed to work with.?
Through her contacts at trade shows, Peggy found opportunities to expand East Earth Herbs. ?In the early ?80s, we began to be approached by companies that wanted to source—do a 500-gallon ginseng extract.? East Earth moved to a leased factory in Eugene, Ore. ?It was a real turning point. We began to be an ingredient supplier and a private formulator,? she says.
Although Peggy makes it sound as if business just arrived at the company?s doorstep, ABC?s Blumenthal remembers the marketing savvy that produced those clients.
?She had an interesting technique. She would do a presentation and ?forget? to have printouts of the slides, so she invited people to give her their business cards and she would send them the presentation. She got all kinds of contacts that helped East Earth grow and produce herbal extracts. She got in on the ground floor with that, with companies that had been thinking about getting into supplements, but hadn?t yet.?
From the beginning, the Brevoorts wanted a state-of-the-art factory, but for different reasons. ?Peggy knew that to move the company to the level where it could compete internationally, we had to improve and increase the credibility of the company through research. Bill just wanted to [research], whether or not it related to stuff we could sell,? says Josef Brinckmann, former commercial sales manager at East Earth and currently vice president of research and development at Traditional Medicinals.
?Working for Bill and Peggy was kind of like working for my folks, which I did when I was a teenager,? Brinckmann says. ?Just like my mom, Peggy kept a close eye on the books, although on occasion Bill would make some pricey upgrades in the R&D lab that Peggy would first learn about when the invoice arrived. You can imagine the subsequent discussions ? .?
Peggy went to China for the first time in 1988 and hired Chinese scientists to work in the factory, doing lab analyses and producing standardized extracts. The scientists also conducted placebo-controlled clinical studies and staffed a quality-control lab.
?What impressed me about working for Peggy was her clear vision and firm commitment towards elevating East Earth Herb to a standard that was more comparable to research-driven European herbal extraction companies than to the typical American extractors who, at that time, were relatively low tech,? Brinckmann says.
Finding her passion
In 1989, Peggy volunteered as AHPA treasurer. ?It was like a homing instinct. Working with trade associations and national [regulations] stuff is more my passion than making and selling product. ?I realized that trade associations were the way to grow the industry. How do you take something that really has come off the kitchen table and make it into a brand? The whole process of interaction with trade and ideas helped an industry grow and gave it legitimacy.?
Working on a national, and eventually international, stage allowed Peggy to use all her Leo qualities, particularly leadership, vivaciousness and forward vision.
?Peggy and I connected at every trade show in the early ?90s—we?d get together for two to three glasses of wine and cook up ideas that would move botanicals into mass channels,? says Rick Prill, former president of New Hope Natural Media and currently president of Inner Doorway publishing company. ?And I was just one of the people she would have those meetings with. She was really a driving force and an amazing leader.?
AHPA?s McGuffin agrees. ?There?s a way we had all grown up in the business, and Peggy was challenging us to look at the world around us and do some work to grow our businesses—write a pretty advertisement, get a pretty endcap at a health food store. She took us, us being the herb industry, seriously and encouraged us to take ourselves seriously.
?She showed us we live in a world that has a government and factors out of our control, but that needn?t be outside our area. It?s just her personality that wherever she?s standing, she?s looking at the horizon, at options to her view of the world.?
Peggy also relied on another asset: consensus building.
?She has an open and humble attitude,? says Loren Israelsen, founding board member of AHPA and now executive director of the Utah Natural Product Alliance. ?She always did a beautiful job in moving people to a consensus point. She didn?t pretend to know all the answers. She?s a very collaborative leader, always trying to find the right solution.?
After a year as AHPA treasurer, LeMole asked Peggy to take over the president?s job. ?She said she couldn?t. She worried about the public role, about speaking, about leadership,? LeMole says. ?Twenty seconds into the job, she was just shining.?
Peggy expanded her public service, becoming a board member of United Plant Savers, Bastyr University, The Corporate Alliance for Integrative Medicine, Citizens for Health and ABC. She is currently ABC president and UpS treasurer.
She began to work more with governmental entities, raising money to fund lobbying and public relations to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, and meeting with legislators and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
It was quite a change for an ex-ashram dweller and farm woman.
?I was sort of like Mata Hari. I?d haul out a suit, put on high heels, poof up my hair and go to Washington,? she says. ?If sitting in the back of a bus in a granny dress with long, stringy hair doesn?t influence the FDA, I?d like to think that putting your hair up and putting on a suit does.?
Bill Brevoort says the suit-wearing Peggy shouldn?t be a surprise. ?She?s not as much of a hippie as me. She was born in New York City, and she carries a sophistication about her. Hippies are willing to offend people with their dress, but Peggy is very sensitive to other people—how they think, what their needs are. She doesn?t flip anybody out—she wouldn?t do that. The sophisticatedness of her social skills is incredible, but she?s pretty straightforward. She doesn?t have a political agenda—she thinks about the benefit of the person.?
Israelsen says Peggy braved the ?big, bad government? when few in the supplements industry would. ?There was a widely held view that no good came of talking to the FDA, but I don?t think she saw it as her role to be asserting political strategy and dealing with Congress directly—instead, she was rallying the troops within the industry to get a sense of consensus about the toughest issues within DSHEA.?
Peggy points out, ?We had to be brave and not say, ?The FDA is so big, there?s nothing we can do.??
As her work with trade associations progressed, Peggy was asked to do market research and make presentations to a variety of organizations around the world, including major pharmaceutical companies, the Drug Information Association and the International Herb Conference. Between 1993 and 2000, she gave 58 presentations and published four articles. Her October 1998 piece in ABC?s HerbalGram, ?The Booming U.S. Botanical Market: A New Overview,? is one of the most frequently requested and cited articles in HerbalGram?s 21-year history, Blumenthal says.
?She represented the herb industry in a professional way, which was sorely needed,? LeMole says. ?She had a lot of international influence. Peggy was just fantastic as our ambassador. It was not uncommon to go to an AHPA event and see Peggy with a band of people from all around the world following her.?
East Earth Herbs continued to grow, and by 1999 had nearly 100 employees and $15 million in yearly revenue. But as herb sales skyrocketed, Peggy says it became obvious East Earth needed a partner or a sale to a larger company to produce the capital necessary to keep up with demand.
Several companies were interested in East Earth, says Roy Bingham, managing director of Health Business Partners, the investment banking firm that handled the sale. ?They were the leading botanical extract company in a number of important extracts, including echinacea, and there were a number of larger companies that wanted to enter the market.?
A.M. Todd Co. of Kalamazoo, Mich., purchased East Earth in 1999. Bingham says the timing was no accident. ?She?s very far-sighted. Most people in the business can only see a few months ahead, but Peggy can see two years ahead. She saw there was likely to be excess capacity [in supplements], she saw her business growth rate was not likely to be maintained.?
The Brevoorts stayed on at A.M. Todd until 2000. Then, with a noncompete clause until May 2002, they moved to Hawaii.
Peggy had landed in Hawaii in the 1980s during flights to Fiji to pick up kava. ?I felt very drawn to it. It?s a magical place, a spiritual community. I felt like, ?Should I leave my family and go get a job as a waitress so I can live here?? I think a lot of what I did [at East Earth] was to get here.?
The Brevoorts bought 10 acres on the north tip of the big island of Hawaii. Their house faces the ocean, and Peggy can see Maui from her office. ?The house is like stepping into an Eastern-inspired spiritual sanctuary,? LeMole says. ?It has teak floors and low bamboo and teak furniture. They redid all the doors so they slide and disappear, so it?s like living outside. There?s a swimming pool right up to the house, and a lanai surrounded by tropical gardens. You feel like you?re living in a garden.?
But Peggy doesn?t spend all her time lolling in paradise. In 2000, she formed Brevoort LLC, an R&D and marketing consultancy for herbal and nutraceutical products. Blumenthal predicts that now that the Brevoorts? noncompete clause has expired, ?I wouldn?t be surprised if Peggy and Bill get back into the market—make a strategic entry as investors or with their own new company.?
But for now, Bill says, the Brevoorts are comfortable being ?aging hippies. We have a meditation group, a dance group. Peggy studies and hopes to build a labyrinth [sacred path] on our land here. And she really likes her herb garden. She relates to plants on a basic level.? Bill studies meditation, astronomy and photography. ?He?s a cutting-edge kind of guy, a Renaissance man,? Peggy says.
For her friends and colleagues in the herbs and supplements industry, Peggy?s legacy lives on. ?There are a lot of good women herbalists, but she?s an industry spokesperson. She played a really critical role in transforming it from a mom-and-pop industry to one that had a lot of quality control,? says Harvard?s Kaptchuk.
?She?s a bridge between the East and the West in the herbal industry.?
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based writer and editor. Reach her at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 10/p. 46, 48, 50-52